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1989 Commencement Speech: William J. Wilson, Professor, University of Chicago

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Father Raynor, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the Faculty and Administration, family and friends, and last, but not least, the graduating class of 1989, I am pleased and honored to be this year's Commencement speaker at Marquette University.

One of the things that I remembered about my pleasant visit to Marquette University for one week during the spring of 1986 was the concern expressed by many of the students with whom I spoke about the problems of inner-city poverty, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor In the United States, and the lack of a strong commitment in this country to alleviate the problems of economic deprivation. When I recently reflected on those conversations I thought that it would perhaps be appropriate to address in my brief remarks this morning the broader issue of American perceptions of poverty and welfare. These perceptions are in sharp contrast to the views expressed by the thoughtful and socially conscious students of Marquette University, and I believe that they make it difficult to generate a national program to effectively combat poverty in America. To be more specific, any effort to improve the lives of the poor will have to confront a strong belief system In the United States that denies the social origins and societal significance of poverty and welfare. For example, after analyzing findings from national survey data collected in 1969 and then again in 1980, one recent study concluded that “Most Americans believe that opportunity for economic advancement is widely available, that economic outcomes are determined by individuals' efforts end talents (or their lack) and that In general economic inequality is fair.”1 Indeed, the national surveys revealed that, when given items representing an individualistic explanation for poverty (e.g., lack of effort or ability, poor morals, and poor work skills), and a structural explanation (e.g., lack of adequate; schooling, low wages, lack of jobs), Americans overwhelmingly favored the individualistic causes over the structural ones. The most popular items. In decreasing order of importance were “lack of thrift or proper money management skills,” “'lack of effort,”' “lack of ability or talent,” attitudes from ones family background that impede social mobility, “failure of society to provide good schools,” and “loose morals and drunkenness.” Except for the “failure of society to provide good schools,” all of these items represent individualistic understandings of the causes of poverty. Structural factors such as “low wages”, “failure of industry to provide jobs,” and “racial discrimination” were considered least important of all. The ordering of these factors remained virtually unchanged over the 1969·1980 period. Similar results from other surveys indicate that this stability of opinion is not an artifact of wording.

The origins and stability of these beliefs are related to a complex set of factors involving the economic system, the class structure, and the political system of the United States. The interplay of these factors can be best understood in a comparative light, i.e., by exploring cross-national variations in the perceptions of poverty. In a 1977 study of the way poverty is perceived in nine Western European countries, only the United Kingdom evidenced attitudes similar to those expressed in the United States. Whereas nearly half of all the respondents to a national survey in the United Kingdom attributed poverty to “laziness and lack of will power,” only 11 percent did so in the Federal Republic of Germany, 12 percent in the Netherlands, 16 percent in France, 20 percent in Italy, 22 percent in Belgium, 23 percent in Denmark, and less than a third in Ireland and Luxembourg.2 The individualistic explanation of poverty, then, far from being universal, seems, in Western society at least, to be peculiarly Anglo-American.

In 1978 the French social scientist Robert Castel argued that the paradox of poverty in affluent American society has rested on the notion that “the poor are individuals who themselves bear the chief responsibility for their condition. As a result the politics of welfare centers around the management of individual deficiencies.”3 
From the building of almshouses in the late nineteenth century to President Johnson's “War on Poverty,” Americans have failed to emphasize the social rights of the poor, “rights whose interpretation is independent of the views of the agencies charged with dispensing assistance”4

The data from public opinion polls support this argument. They indicate that Americans tend to be far more concerned about the duties or social obligations of the poor, particularly the welfare poor, than about their social rights as American citizens to be free poverty and economic deprivation.5

A recent survey suggests that underlying such public sentiment is the belief that it is the moral fabric of individuals, not inequities in the social and economic structure of society, that is the cause of the problem. Indeed, this survey uncovered widespread sentiment for the notion that most welfare recipients do not share the majority view about the importance of hard work.6> A majority of the whites polled in this study disagreed with the pro-welfare statement that “most welfare recipients do need help and could not get along without welfare.” There was strong sentiment for the view that welfare reform, in the words of one respondent, should be “to get people motivated and become part of the system.” Finally, this study emphasized “that there is today, as there has been for years, general agreement - shared by whites and nonwhites alike – that many people on welfare could be working, that many people on welfare cheat, and that a lot of money spent on behalf of the poor has been wasted.7

The heavy emphasis on the individual traits of the poor and on the duties or social obligations of welfare recipients are not unique to the general public. This “common wisdom” has been uncritically Integrated In the work of many poverty researchers.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the expanding network of poverty researchers In the United States paid considerable attention to the question of individuals’ work attitudes and the association between income maintenance programs and the work ethic of the poor. They consistently ignored the effects of basic economic transformations and cyclical processes on the work experiences and prospects of the poor. In an examination of American approaches to the study of poverty from a European perspective, Waller Korpi pointed out that “efforts to explain poverty and Inequality in the United States… appear primarily to have been sought in terms of the characteristics of the poor.” Whereas poverty researchers In the United States have conducted numerous studies on the work motivation of the poor, problems of human capital (whereby poverty is discussed as, if not reduced to, a problem of lack of education and occupational skills), and the effects of income-maintenance programs on the supply of labor, they have largely neglected to study the impact of extremely high levels of postwar unemployment on impoverished Americans. Ironically, “In Europe, where unemployment has been considerably lower, the concerns of politicians as well as researchers have been keyed much more strongly to the question of unemployment,” states Korpi. “It Is an intellectual paradox that living in a society that has been a sea of unemployment, American poverty researchers have concentrated their research Interests on the work motivation of the poor.”9

Another irony is that despite this narrow focus, these very American researchers have consistently uncovered empirical findings that undermine, not support, assumptions about the negative effects of welfare receipt on Individual Initiative and motivation. Yet these assumptions persist among policymakers and “the paradox of continuing high poverty during a period of general prosperity has contributed to the recently emerging consensus that welfare must be reformed.”10

Although it is reasonable to argue that policymakers are not aware of a good deal of the empirical research on the effects of welfare, the General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, released a study in early 1987 which reported that there was no conclusive evidence for the prevailing belief that welfare discourages individuals from working, breaks up two-parent families, or affects the child-bearing rates of unmarried women, even young unmarried women.

The GAO report reached these conclusions after reviewing the results of more than 100 empirical studies on the effects of welfare completed since 1975. Although these conclusions should come as no surprise to poverty researchers familiar with the empirical literature, they should have generated a stir among congressmen, many of whom have no doubt been influenced by the highly publicized works of conservative scholars ascribe, without direct empirical evidence, persistent poverty and other social dislocations to the negative effects of welfare and the development of a welfare culture. But, apparently, rigorous scientific argument is no match for the dominant belief system: the views of congressmen were apparently not significantly altered by the GAO report. The growth of social dislocations among the inner-city poor and the continued high rates of poverty led an increasing number of policymakers to conclude that something should be done about the current welfare system to halt what they perceive to be the breakdown of the norms of citizenship. Indeed, a liberal-conservative consensus on welfare reform has recently emerged which features two themes: (1) the receipt of welfare should be predicated on reciprocal responsibilities whereby society is obligated to provide assistance to welfare applicants who, in turn, are obligated to behave in socially approved ways, and (2) able-bodied adult welfare recipients should be required to prepare themselves for work, to search for employment, and to accept jobs when they are offered. These points of agreement were reflected in the discussions of the welfare reform legislation recently passed in Congress.

These two themes are based on the implicit assumption that a sort of mysterious “welfare ethos” exists that encourages public assistance recipients to avoid their obligations as citizens to be educated, to work, to support their families, and to obey the law. In other words, and in keeping with the dominant American belief system, It is the moral fabric of individuals, not the social and economic structure of society that is taken to be the root of the problem. Let me reemphasize that there is no rigorous research to support this view.

Poverty, like other aspects of class inequality, is a consequence not only of the differential distribution of economic privileges and resources, but of the differential access to culture as well. In other words, in an industrial society, groups tend to be stratified in terms of the material assets or resources they control, the benefits and privileges they receive from these resources, the cultural experiences they have accumulated from historical and existing economic and political arrangements, and the influence they yield because of those arrangements. Accordingly, group variation in behavior and performance is related to the variations of access to organizational channels of privilege and influence.

When this subtle point is made, it is important to remember that poor Americans, including inner-city ghetto residents overwhelmingly endorse mainstream values regarding work, family, and the law. What is so apparent to me - after reading pages and pages of field notes from our current research on poverty, joblessness, and family structure in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago - is the extraordinary effort these residents have to make to uphold these values.

This is the message that I have tried to communicate to members of the United States Congress in an effort to challenge them to move beyond the narrow vision that defines poverty in individualistic terms and to begin to recognize the problem of life-chances in the inner-city ghetto – that is, the powerful obstacles to social mobility as reflected in the structure of opportunities and constraints in urban America. But this message is difficult to communicate when you only have a limited amount of time and is not likely to offset the simplistic images many members of Congress have obtained from the media's depiction of the underclass, images based on poignant anecdotal evidence, images that resonate with the dominant American belief system's emphasis on personal inadequacies in accounting for the plight of urban poor.
So I have decided that in the future when I give testimony before Congress I will attempt to include in my presentation equally poignant anecdotal evidence that captures the problem of blocked opportunity and that challenges the validity of the dominant American beliefs about poverty and welfare in general, and the ghetto underclass in particular. Let me conclude this lecture with an example of the kind of anecdotal evidence I have in mind by reading a brief excerpt from the field notes prepared by one my research assistants after he Interviewed a 29-year old-black male who lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Chicago.

Transcript begins: Clifford Is a 29 year old black male who quit school In 11th grade and currently works night-shifts (from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.) as a ''dishwasher and assistant cook” in a western suburb of Chicago. He has lived in the city for 16 years and in his present neighborhood [on Chicago's South Side] for two years. He resides with his mother, a homemaker of 52, his sister of 23, a younger sister of 18, and a little brother of 12. Cllfford has never been married and has no children. While he was raised partly on welfare support, he has never received public aid himself.

Clifford has been working for several years as a dishwasher for different employers. He now cooks, mops, and washes dishes for $4.85 an hour. He has held this job since February of 1985 without taking a single day of vacation. His supervisor has made it crystal clear to him that he Is expendable and that if he takes too much (that is, any) vacation, they will not keep him. On the day of the interview, he had had a molar pulled and was in great pain (partly due to the fact that, not having any money and having already borrowed cash to pay for the extraction, he could not buy the prescribed pain killers); yet he was extremely reluctant to call his boss and ask for an evening off.

When I asked if he expects to find a better job soon, he laughed: “I don’t know: this is up to the employers, If they wanta hire me.” Should he find one, it would be “somethin’ in the restaurant business, hospital, or maybe a hotel or somethin’, doing dishes.”

He has not taken any steps to get further education or training, mainly because his work schedule and lack of resources make such planning quasi-impossible. Yet he clearly would like to get more so he
”can better [himself] In life,” he says, as he tucks his shirt under his armpits, stroke his belly, yawns as he lays stretched out on the couch…With his present wage, he cannot save any money (“You can't, uh
[chuckles] I be right back to my next day. You can't. Don't make

As a result, he frequently finds himself without any money. “Yeah, like today. I had to get my tooth pulled and I had to go out and rent money.” When this happens, he borrows small sums (about $20.00) from friends and associates: “I just try to hang in there, whatever I can do.” People In the neighborhood often find themselves out of cash too, and the result is that illegal activities are fairly routine: “Oh, man some of them steal, some of them, uh… It's hard to say, man: they probably do anything; they can to get a dollar in their pocket. Robbin', prostitution, drug sale, anythin. Oh boy!” At this point in the interview, Clifford holds his hand to his cheek and constantly moans in pain… Clifford' s life as he described it to me was a real wreck, and he was evidently quite desperate, with no perspective of Improvement in sight.

All of this was pretty depressing and the mere fact of interviewing him under these circumstances was almost obscene: I felt quite ill at ease in this situation, although I never showed It to Clifford (who was in too much pain to have noticed anyway). In fact I was so nauseated by the whole thing that I couldn't transcribe it when I came back to my office. I waited for days before typing this interview and even now, as I listened to the tape again, it makes me at once depressed, sad, and perplexed. Once the interview was over, I explained I’d pay him with a money order because we don't carry cash with us. “I don’t blame you for not bringing any money around here, man. I don't blame you. I have been stuck up before. I don't blame you.” Transcript ends.

This is the kind of message that my future congressional testimony will include, and I will point out that when I read pages and pages of our field notes on the endless struggle for survival In the inner-city ghetto, I think about the myopic perceptions of those who have been complaining about the declining norms of citizenship in the ghetto, about those who do not question the validity of the prevailing belief system on poverty and welfare, and about those who have helped to shift the current emphasis away from the social rights of the truly disadvantaged to be free of poverty and economic deprivation in our affluent society.


1 James R. Kluegel and Eliot R. Smith. Beliefs About Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York; Aldine de Gruyter, 1986, p. 37.

2 The Perception of Poverty in Europe, “Commission of the European Communities” rue de la Loi, 1049 Brussels, March 1977.

3 The Perception of Poverty in Europe, “Commission of the European Communities” rue de la Loi, 1049 Brussels, March 1977.

4 Ibid.

5 Kelth Melville and John Ooble, The public's perspective on Social Welfare Reform. The Public Agenda Foundation, January 1988.

6 Melvllle and Doble, op. cit.

7 Ibid.

8 Walter Korpi, “Approaches to the Study of Poverty In the United States: Critical Notes from a European Perspective.” in Poverty and Public Policy: An Evaluation of Social Research, (ed. by V. T. Covello), Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, p. 305.

9 Ibid, emphasis added.

10 Melville and Doble, cp. cit.

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